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Legendary Aviators Of Appalachia, And The Infamous Pot Plane Crash Of 1979

Obit Chuck Yeager
AP
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AP
In this 1948 file photo, test pilot Charles E. Yeager, 25, poses for a picture in a jet's cockpit. Yeager was first to fly faster than the speed of sound. Another Yeager feat, flying a jet under a Charleston, W.Va., bridge in 1948, was not reported by the local media. Yeager died Monday, Dec. 7, 2020, at age 97. (AP Photo/File)

Over Memorial Day weekend, airports across the country reported the highest numbers of people flying in more than a year. As more of us are dreaming once again of flight, we thought this would be a good time to listen back to an episode of Inside Appalachia that originally aired last summer. We’ll hear stories about flight: legendary aviators, fighter pilots, and a plane ride that didn’t quite go as planned. It was known as the “Pot Plane Crash.”

Also, since we originally aired this episode in 2020, we’ve heard from one of the people who was involved in the pot plane crash, a man named Jerome Lill. He’s written a book about his experience, “Final Approach: In the Battle of Angels, it's a God Thing.” Lill visited Charleston for the anniversary of the crash. Because this story is just so weird and wild, we invited him into our studios to share his version of events. We’ll also remember Chuck Yeager, who broke the sound barrier in 1947. He passed away last December at the age of 97.

In This Episode:

Abandoned Airfields

Southern West Virginia used to be home to 40 airfields — or landing strips for airplanes. Today, there are 28, and some are dormant. This week on the show, our co-host Caitlin Tan looks into what happened to all those runways.

WWI Flying Ace

Louis Bennett was a flying ace in World War I. He grew up and learned to fly, then built an airplane factory in the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia before enlisting with Canada to fight in the war. Bennett died in France in August 1918. His great nephew, U.S. Rep David McKinley, says Bennett’s story continues to inspire him to grow the aviation industry here in the Mountain State. West Virginia Public Broadcasting reporter Glynis Board brings us this story.

 

Airplane Parts

The aviation manufacturing industry Louis Bennett helped launch is still producing airplane parts in West Virginia. West Virginia exports more than $150 million in airplane parts every year and it is the state’s fifth-largest export, according to the US Census.

Even now, as the global pandemic means less travel, West Virginia’s role in the aviation economy may actually stand to be more resilient. Our assistant news director Eric Douglas reports.

Chuck Yeager Breaking Barriers

Chuck Yeager is one of Appalachia’s, and the world’s, most famous aviators. A West Virginia native, in 1947 he was the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound.

In 2007, Yeager agreed to fly with Washington Post aviation reporter Del Wilber, in the Sierra Mountains of California. We’ll hear that story, which originally aired on NPR’s program “Day to Day.”

Chuck Yeager, standing next to the "Glamorous Glennis," the Bell X-1 experimental plane in which he first broke the sound barrier.
Chuck Yeager standing next to the "Glamorous Glennis," the Bell X-1 experimental plane in which he first broke the sound barrier.

Chuck Yeager was flying the Bell X - 1 when he broke the sound barrier, but it’s worth noting that a less astute pilot might have died trying. Other iterations and subsequent X-planes have since taken to the skies, breaking barriers and pushing technological limits. Today NASA and other organizations are working on the X59, with the assistance of a West Virginia company — Touchstone Research Laboratories. The Wheeling-based lab creates the molds used to cast the carbon fiber parts for the airplane. And, fun fact: one of the key ingredients in the molds is Appalachian coal.

Pot Plane Crash — And An Update

On June 6, 1979, a Douglas DC 6 cargo plane asked for permission to land at the Kanawha Airport, now Yeager Airport, in Charleston, West Virginia. It crashed, in part because they were drug smugglers from South America who had never flown into the airport and they were carrying approximately 20,000 pounds of marijuana.

For this story, we hear from West Virginia historian, and the editor of Goldenseal Magazine, Stan Bumgardner, who gives us the factual account.

jerome 1.jpg
Stan Bumgardner
Jerome Lill was a smuggler who organized the shipment of marijuana that crashed at what was then Kanawha Airport on June 6, 1979.

For a different perspective, storyteller Bil Lepp tells a tall tale about the plane crash, which he recorded in 2008 at the St. Albans Public Library. That recording is featured on his album “Fire Fire! Pants on Liar.” Bil Lepp is an award-winning storyteller, and five-time winner of the West Virginia Liars' Contest.
Since we originally aired this episode in 2020, we’ve heard from one of the people who was involved in the pot plane crash of 1979. He’s written a book about his experience. “Final Approach: In the Battle of Angels, it's a God Thing” is by Jerome Lill, who walked away from the famed pot plane that went down. He visited Charleston for the anniversary of the crash. And because this story is just so weird and wild, we invited him into our studios to share his version of events. He spoke with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Eric Douglas.

Greenbrier Bunker

There is a secret bunker hidden — for three decades — in the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia. The bunker was originally constructed during the Eisenhower administration. It was the 1950s, and fears of a nuclear apocalypse made the president search out a remote location where all 535 members of Congress could hide, in the case of a nuclear attack. They selected a remote springs resort that was a mere hop, skip and a jump from Washington, D.C..

Paul Freeman has written about the Greenbrier Bunker on a website he runs called Abandoned and Little Known Airfields. We called him up to learn more of the story. The secret of the Greenbrier bunker was eventually exposed in 1992. The government has supposedly built a new secret bunker. Who knows, maybe this one also exists right here, in Appalachia.

Your Stories

As we were working on this episode, we asked you to tell us your first memories of flying in a plane. In this episode we'll hear some of those stories, but we'd love to hear from more of you. What do you remember about the first time you were in a plane? If you’ve flown, tell us what it was like to fly in Appalachia for the very first time. Send us an email to insideappalachia@wvpublic.org. Or send us a message on our Facebook page. Our Twitter handle is @InAppalachia.

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Our theme music is by Matt Jackfert. Other music this week was provided by Dinosaur Burps, Anna and Elizabeth, Josh Woodward, Luiz Bonfa and Marisa Anderson.

Roxy Todd is our producer.Jade Artherhults is our associate producer. Our executive producer is Andrea Billups. Kelley Libby is our editor. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. Zander Aloi also helped produce this episode.

Mason Adams grew up near the Virginia/West Virginia border in Clifton Forge, Virginia. He’s covered mountain communities and the issues affecting them since 2001. His work has appeared in Southerly, Daily Yonder, 100 Days in Appalachia, Mother Jones, Huffington Post and elsewhere. He lives with his family and a small herd of goats in Floyd County, Virginia. Follow him on Twitter @MasonAtoms.
Roxy Todd joined West Virginia Public Broadcasting in 2014 and works as the producer for Inside Appalachia. She's the recipient of a National Edward R. Murrow Award for "Excellence in Video," for a story about the demands small farmers face in West Virginia. She also won a National PMJA Award For "Best Feature" for her story about the history of John Denver's song "Country Roads." You can reach her at rtodd@wvpublic.org.
Jade Artherhults is the associate producer for Inside Appalachia and is based in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at jartherhults@wvpublic.org or @JArtherhults on Twitter.
Glynis Board hails from the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia and is based in Wheeling at the First State Capital Building. She’s been reporting full time for West Virginia Public Broadcasting since 2012. She covers a broad range of topics but focuses on producing and hosting the West Virginia Public Broadcasting's daily news show West Virginia Morning.